Stags Leap, an American Viticulture Area (AVA) of Napa Valley, is one of the most scenic areas of the Napa Valley. The land produces some of the most full-bodied red wines in the United States. Stags Leap includes some 2,700 acres. It was established in 1989 as the first viticulture area in the U.S. based on its unique soil characteristics. There are some 16 wineries in the region that takes about five minutes or less to drive through. The red wines from this region have been described as having an "iron fist in a velvet glove."
We started our day of tasting at Shafer Vineyards. The tasting host was a former sommelier with enough knowledge and patience to answer silly as well as the most exacting questions about vineyard practices, weather, French cooperage and yellow Labradors. The tour began outside the tasting room overlooking the family vineyards. The discussion ranged from pruning techniques to water. Tucker, the iconic yellow lab at the winery, joined us as did the family patriarch and winery founder John Shafer. After 45 minutes, we moved into a simple, yet lovely tasting room. Each place was set with six glasses, the winery "Owner's Manual," pen, water glass and a roaring fire.
We began with the 2007 Red Shoulder Ranch (Carneros AVA not Stags Leap) Chardonnay. It is a clean and crisp tasting wine with great acidity and citrus notes. Unlike a typical California Chardonnay, it has not undergone malolactic fermentation. The wine was aged in 75 percent new French oak with the rest in stainless steel. I was tickled to find out that the wine maker, Elias Fernandez, is a big sparkling wine fan. His favorite sparkling is Schramsberg. The taste of this Chardonnay shows a similarity with Schramsberg's in terms of quality, clarity and simplicity. If you want to taste the bare bones Chardonnay grape, try this wine.
The next wine had a stunning taste and structure. The 2006 Napa Valley Merlot is 76 percent Merlot, 17 percent Cabernet and 7 percent Cabernet Franc. The combination of varietals creates a mighty tasty Merlot. The juice spends 20 months in French oak, 60 percent of this new. Ten thousand cases are produced a year. It is definitely worth the effort to find a bottle.
My all time favorite wine of this tasting was the deep purple 2006 Relentless Syrah. Grown on a ridge top on the Napa side of the Vaca Mountain range this bold, earthy wine is a field blend of 80 percent Syrah and 20 percent Petite Syrah. It is aged in 100 percent new French oak for 30 months. The wine is forceful, mighty and fun.
As industry employees we were informed that although the Hillside Select (100 percent Cabernet) was listed as "sold out" on the sales list, we would be able to purchase a bottle.
Shafer's wines are worth tasting and buying. The tasting experience and presentation is extremely pleasurable and the staff is knowledgeable and friendly.
Editor's note: We visited three other wineries as well. They will be reviewed in the coming days.